One of the first significant steps we took in our kitchen renovation was tearing down the upper cabinets. Unlike the cabinets you find in most homes, our cabinets were built in place out of dimensional lumber, rather than boxes that are easily detached from the walls and removed. After a half a day of complicated and unwieldy demolition, I found myself looking at this:
Knowing we weren't planning to add upper cabinets back in, I could see right away that the fridge, which had always bothered me to some extent, sticking out so far beyond the counter and unpleasantly closing in the kitchen, looked ridiculous now that the uppers were gone. I looked into counter depth fridges, and they were way out of our budget (Why is this? I don't understand why shaving a few inches off the front of a fridge causes the price to triple.) So what are the alternatives to a counter depth fridge, when your minimalist kitchen can't handle the scale of a 20cuft+ model? If you're on any kind of a budget, the only answer is downsizing your fridge to what's known as a "compact" or "apartment" refrigerator.
The average US refrigerator is 20cuft, and compact models are between 8-15cuft. While many American households keep a second fridge in the basement, when I reflected on our small family's fridge use, I wasn't convinced we needed the 26cuft we had. At the beginning of the year when we started working on lowering our utility bills, we placed a ton of glass jars and bottles filled with water in the back of our fridge to take up space and help it run more efficiently. That was a pretty strong indicator we didn't need all that space.
A refrigerator is a substantial purchase, and if we were going to deviate sharply from the norm, I needed to be sure about the choice. When I started digging into my research about fridge size and use, it turns out there's a lot of people with thoughts on the subject, and that the colossal refrigerator is unsurprisingly a distinctly American cultural fixture. If you're as curious as I was, here's some excellent reading on the subject:
How American Refrigerators Got So Big
Your Giant American Refrigerator Is Making You Fat And Poor
In Europe, little refrigerators hold a grand reason for less waste
Our fridges, ourselves, Moving in with an expat taught me that what we prefer in our homes is culture, not nature
Small fridges make good cities, but American fridges just keep getting bigger
We generally don't grocery shop for a whole week at a time, and when we do, I find our produce doesn't last long enough to make it to the end of the week meals we have planned. The small refrigerator reflects our eating habits, encourages us to stay on top of what's in our fridge and eat what we already have, because there isn't room for more food until we go through what's there. Cleaning the refrigerator monthly is a five-minute task now, instead of 30-60.
One change you might need to get used to if you decide to downsize your refrigerator is having the freezer on top. While I loved the drawer style freezer on our last few refrigerators, it turns out freezer on bottom style fridges are inherently less energy efficient. The reason makes perfect sense, cold air sinks.
We may consider a small chest freezer for the basement in the future for putting away seasonal produce or a large meat share. Even if we added one, the combo of that plus our small refrigerator would be significantly more efficient than the fridge we got rid of; again, cold air sinks, and chest freezers open with doors on the top, making the cold very unlikely to escape, or hot air to get in.
On the less practical and more aesthetic side of things, I love how much more open our kitchen feels since we made the switch to the small refrigerator. Design wise, downsizing the fridge was 100% the right move. On the rare occasion I see small refrigerators on design-oriented sites, if it's a US site it's nearly universally the adorable retro styled (and extremely expensive) Smeg. We weren't about to drop $3K on our new compact fridge, and thankfully the basic models in the $300ish range didn't disappoint. Here's the same view of the kitchen from above, still mid-renovation, but with the compact model. The lines are all so much better. The new fridge is the height of the extra tall 24" backsplash, and the depth of our new shallower cabinets, and we gained 10" of counter and cabinet space. We've created great flow in our kitchen floor plan just by making this simple change.
We were able to sell our old full sized fridge on Craigslist for enough to cover the cost of our new fridge, for a net zero financial impact. Several months in, I can confidently say for our small family of three downsizing our refrigerator was the right choice, even though it felt radical at the time. (I'm sure my European friends are laughing at me for that.) Since we made the switch we waste less food, we use less energy, and our kitchen looks better. Would you consider downsizing your refrigerator? Why or why not?
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